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By analysing data on the age distribution of cerebral malaria among sites of different transmission intensities, we conclude that the most plausible explanation for the epidemiological patterns seen is that (i) cerebral malaria is caused by a distinct set of Plasmodium falciparum antigenic types; (ii) these antigenic types or 'CM strains' are very common and induce strong strain-specific immunity; and (iii) the postnatal period of protection against cerebral malaria is much longer than the period of protection against other forms of severe disease. The alternative hypothesis that cerebral malaria may be caused by any 'strain' of P. falciparum is compatible with the data only if a single exposure is sufficient to protect against further episodes. This is not consistent with observations on the history of exposure of patients with cerebral malaria. Finally, it is clear that although the delayed peak in incidence of cerebral malaria (with age) can be generated by assuming that subsequent exposures carry a higher risk of disease, such an explanation is not compatible with the observation that severe disease rates are low among infants and young children in areas of high transmissibility.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Biol Sci

Publication Date





33 - 38


Africa South of the Sahara, Age Factors, Animals, Child, Child, Preschool, Humans, Infant, Infant, Newborn, Malaria, Cerebral, Models, Biological, Plasmodium falciparum, Risk Factors, Species Specificity